Even now, after all that’s happened, most political reporters find themselves either unwilling or unable to identify Donald Trump’s tirades as hate speech. But they fit the textbook definition, inasmuch as it’s even a useful concept. The New York Times is on the receiving end of a storm of criticism at the moment for their botched story on Trump’s whirlwind Wednesday from Mexico City to Phoenix. And they deserve it. But the offense is mainly one of laziness and sloppiness – offenses which the Times’ privileged position makes it again and again vulnerable to. You write the story about the arc of the day, file it to edit and production. But while the piece is on autopilot in those later stages of the journalistic process the reality of the day changes radically and you end up publishing a story that is night and day of the reality everybody has just seen. But this embarrassment is a pedestrian stumble. The far greater offense is the one almost every news organization committed with the Times. This isn’t ‘tough’ or ‘hard edged’ speechifying. This is hate speech.
We tend to think in over-literal or clumsy ways about ‘hate speech’. Most often we assume that it’s a matter of using particular words, referring to a black woman as the n-word or calling a Jew a kike. And these slurs are often the bread and butter of hate speech. But they don’t constitute it in themselves. Two African-American comics can have a routine where they use the n-word right and left. That may be good or bad – it’s really a debate for the African-American community. But it’s not hate speech. Hate speech is rants meant to inflame, inspire fear or rage or violence against a particular class of people. The precise vocabulary is not the heart of the matter. There’s no question that what Trump’s Wednesday night speech was was hate speech, a tirade filled with yelling, a snarling voice, air chopped to bits with slashing hands and through it all a story of American victims helpless before a looming threat from dangerous, predatory outsiders.
I’ve discussed the matter a few times in these pages. But I’m stunned at how little reaction or discussion we see of how sick and dangerous it is to parade these victimized families around like props. McClatchy has a good piece of journalism out tonight looking up the actual stories behind these testimonies. Some are more complicated than they’re presented. But the family members aren’t any less dead.
One case of a daughter killed by an “illegal” turns out to be a 22 year old woman, Shayley Estes, who was shot to death last year by a Russian boyfriend, Igor Zubko, she’d once lived with. According to Estes’ mother, Zubko he’d overstayed his visa at the time he killed Shayley. Spousal/partner violence against women seems like the more relevant issue here, not immigration. But my point here isn’t to factcheck the victim stories. There are millions of undocumented immigrants in the US. It is a certainty that they are collectively responsible for many murders, auto fatalities, DUIs and much more. After all, they are believed to make up roughly 3% of the US population. These families have suffered horribly. And if some of their stories don’t totally check, there are certainly others who might take their place on that stage with Trump if they chose to. The salient point is that as with Shayley Estes’ murder, immigration policy and status is incidental to these horrors.
These families have suffered horribly but no more than the families of victims of American murderers and Americans who committed DUI fatalities. If we went out and found victims who’d suffered grievously at the hands of Jews or blacks and paraded them around the country before angry crowds the wrongness and danger of doing so would be obvious. Now, you might say, that’s not fair. American Jews and African-Americans are citizens, with as much right to be here as anyone else. But that’s just a dodge. There’s no evidence that undocumented immigrants commit more crimes than documented or naturalized immigrants. Indeed, there is solid evidence that immigrants commit fewer crimes than the native born. Simple logic tells us that undocumented immigrants face greater consequences for being apprehended by police and thus likely are more careful to avoid it. They’re likely more apt to avoid contact with authorities than the rest of us.
There is a legitimate public policy question about how aggressive we should be in deporting those who our laws say should not be in the country in the first place. But the fact that some of them commit crimes is not relevant to the discussion. This is simply a way of whipping up irrational fear and hatred. Though I wouldn’t use the word ‘demonize’, one could fairly argue that groups like MADD spent decades demonizing drunk drivers. But of course this is demonizing a specific activity which has caused thousands of deaths. The action itself is the cause of death and suffering. There is no comparable argument to be made about immigration status. It is simply blood libel and incitement.
Indeed, my hypothetical about Jews and African-Americans is no hypothetical. Anyone who is familiar with the history of the Jim Crow South or 1930s Germany and the centuries of anti-Semitism that preceded it will tell you that the celebration and valorization of victims was always a central part of sustaining bigotry, fear and oppression. We know now that many victims of lynching or blood libel were in fact wholly innocent. But of course not all of them were. The specific idea of ritual killing behind the phrase ‘blood libel’ was an anti-Semitic fantasy. But being members of an oppressed group is no exemption from human nature. There were blacks who raped and killed whites and Jews who raped and killed Christians. The valorization of victims was and is a way of provoking vicarious horror, rage, hate and finally violence whether specific individuals were guilty or not.
I must return to the point: the suffering of these exploited victims is real. Indeed, I’m no stranger to that pain. When I was a child I lost a beloved relative in an auto accident. I know from my experience the intense desire to find a scapegoat or someone to blame. I don’t begrudge any of these families not only their agony but even their a desire to blame whole groups. Grief warps the mind. But there’s no excuse for those who have themselves suffered nothing but exploit this suffering to propagate hate. That fact that we’ve become inured to this, that we now find it normal to see these cattle calls of grief and incitement as part of a political campaign is shocking and sickening. There’s no other word for this but incitement and blood libel.
Watch Trump’s speeches, with the yelling, the reddened face, the demand for vengeance and you see there’s little to distinguish them from what we see at Aryan Nations or other white hate rallies that we all immediately recognize as reprehensible, wrong and frankly terrifying. This isn’t ‘rough’ language or ‘hard edged’ rhetoric. It’s hate speech. Precisely what policy solution Trump is calling for is almost beside the point. Indeed, it wouldn’t be hate speech any less if Trump specified no policy solution at all.
This isn’t normal. It was normal in the Jim Crow South, as it was in Eastern Europe for centuries. It’s not normal in America in the 21st century. And yet it’s become normalized. It’s a mammoth failure of our political press. But it’s not just theirs, ours. It’s a collective failure that we’re all responsible for. By any reasonable standard, Donald Trump’s speech on Wednesday night should have ended the campaign, as should numerous other rallies where Trump has done more or less the same thing for months. There’s a reason why the worst of the worst, the organized and avowed racists, were thrilled and almost giddy watching the spectacle. But it has become normalized. We do not even see it for what it is. It’s like we’ve all been cast under a spell. That normalization will be with us long after this particular demagogue, Donald Trump, has left the stage. Call this what it is: it is hate speech, in its deepest and most dangerous form.